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SAMHSA News - Volume X, No. 2, Spring 2002

Terrorism: Helping Communities Heal (Part 2)

New Jersey

A FEMA/CMHS-funded program called Project Phoenix is attempting the same feat in the nine New Jersey counties most affected by the disaster.

Home to many who commuted across the Hudson River to the World Trade Center, New Jersey suffered many direct losses when the World Trade Center towers collapsed. As a result, Project Phoenix provides outreach and crisis counseling to widows' groups, older people who lost adult children in the attacks, and children who lost their parents. When people need more traditional mental health services, crisis counselors refer them to the public mental health system or the New Jersey Psychological Association.

Project Phoenix is trying to accommodate other groups as well. Disaster coordinator Gladys Padro, M.S.W., of the Division of Mental Health Services in the New Jersey Department of Human Services in Trenton, said "We were kind of overrun with requests from employee assistance programs at corporations that were in New York but relocated to New Jersey, for example." The large Latino population that worked in the restaurant industry in New York needs help. So do the families of military personnel at the state's military bases. Even commuters face additional stresses, because the disaster disrupted train service into the city.

Several new initiatives are being developed. For example, the project is working with a science center and several local junior leagues to put together an overnight program that would offer adolescents fun activities during the day and group counseling in the evening. A daytime program would offer similar services to younger children. The project is also working with the department of education to plan a workshop that would help teachers learn how to talk to children, identify signs of children in trouble, and avoid "compassion fatigue." There are plans to train a group of service providers to respond to the special emotional needs of emergency personnel.

In addition, the project sent crisis counselors to a family assistance center the Governor established in Jersey City's Liberty State Park just across the Hudson River from Ground Zero. Crisis counselors even escorted family members on the boat ride from the park to the World Trade Center site, providing emotional support and education during these traumatic visits by family members to pay homage and seek closure at the site where their loved ones died. After 6 months of service to thousands of family members, the center finally closed in March.

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Virginians are also experiencing what disaster mental health coordinator Bill Armistead, M.P.H., calls an "ongoing event." The attack on the Pentagon was only the first trauma to hit northern Virginia, he pointed out. Next came the threat of anthrax-contaminated mail. Then came economic disaster as tourists and convention-goers cancelled their plans to visit nearby Washington, DC.

The area's large immigrant population faces additional stressors. A relatively large Muslim population suffered retaliatory hate crimes, while the attack reawakened memories of war-torn homelands for the area's many Southeast Asian, Latin American, and other immigrants.

Simply living in the area can produce anxiety, said Mr. Armistead, a senior planner in the Virginia Department of Mental Health, Mental Retardation, and Substance Abuse Services in Richmond. "If you've seen that symbols have been attacked, and you're commuting back and forth past those symbols every day, that can be pretty tough," he explained. "When you add in the CIA, the Norfolk Naval Base, and other Federal Government and military sites in the area, it can feel like you're sitting right on top of a bull's eye."

Helping Virginians handle the stress of all these traumatic events is the goal of the FEMA/CMHS-funded Community Resilience Project. The project targets the 1.8 million Virginians served by the five community services boards in northern Virginia. Supplemental funds from SAMHSA will help the state meet the increased demand for traditional mental health and substance abuse services in the long run. That assistance is especially welcome in the face of the budget cuts the local community services boards faced as the local economy soured in the weeks after the attack.

Northern Virginia's enormous ethnic diversity has made outreach efforts challenging, said Mr. Armistead. For example, the project has had to translate public service announcements and other materials into a variety of languages.

But there are other difficulties as well, said Mr. Armistead. "In our culture, if I look you in the eye when I'm talking to you it would indicate that I'm telling the truth," he explained. "In the Muslim culture, especially if it's a male to female conversation, I should avert my eyes because otherwise it would appear that I'm staring at you rudely."

Like the other FEMA/CMHS-funded projects, the Community Resilience Project tries to avoid such problems by hiring indigenous crisis counselors who can adapt their outreach techniques to suit their own communities.

Crisis counselors have also worked to multiply their effect by reaching out to clergy members, physicians, and others who may come in contact with people who need help. For example, crisis counselors and their supervisors from the community services boards have offered training designed to teach primary-care physicians how people respond after disasters and where they can get additional help.

"In traditional mental health, you have a clinic and people come to it for help," said Mr. Armistead. "That's not going to happen in a disaster. Members of the public aren't going to come out and say they need help. You have to go out to them."

For more information about disaster relief and mental health, contact SAMHSA's National Mental Health Information Center at at P.O. Box 42557, Washington, DC 20015. Telephone: 1 (800) 789-2647 or (866) 889-2647 (TDD). Or visit SAMHSA's Web site at

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